To celebrate UN World Arabic Day, the British Council's Tony Calderbank picks out five works that offer unique insight into the Arab world's culture and heritage.
There’s a lot of news coming out of the Arab world these days, mainly grim stuff in the press or online, painting a depressing and very much one-sided picture of this vast geographical and culturally diverse area. If you want to delve a little deeper into the Arab world and see another side of its rich heritage and culture, it’s well worth taking the time to sample some of the delights of Arabic literature.
Here are five suggestions to give you an idea of what’s on offer. They are all available in English translation, so you don’t have to learn Arabic to read them, though you may be tempted to once you have.
The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri
This celebrated freethinker, ascetic, humanist and committed vegetarian lived in Syria during the 11th century. The head of his statue in his home town of Ma’arrat al Numan was recently chopped off, possibly because he challenged accepted doctrine with a passion. He was the Voltaire of his time.
‘All religions err’, he says. In fact, there are only two sects in the whole world: 'One, man intelligent without religion, the second, religious without intellect'. In the epistle, al Maarri considers the works and thoughts of some of the great poets and thinkers who preceded him. With his great erudition and mastery of language, coupled with a biting sense of irony, he challenges and refutes their views and is critical of many aspects of accepted orthodox belief. At one point, in what is a clear precursor of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he makes a journey to paradise where he meets the wine-drinking, womanising pagan poets of the pre-Islamic period, and then to hell where he encounters the religious scholars.
Once banned in Algeria and decapitated almost a thousand years after his birth in his home town, Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri is widely read in the Arab world, and many Arabs acknowledge him as one of their greatest literary figures. His influence has been enormous, but so little known in the modern West that we have little idea how far ahead of his time he really was.
The latest English version of The Epistle of Forgiveness has just won the Sheikh Hamad Translation Prize.
The Golden Ode of Imrul Qays
Widely accepted as the finest Arab poet of all, Imrul Qays lived in Najd in the century before the arrival of Islam. His Golden Ode is considered the most brilliant example of the vibrant oral poetry of the desert Arabs – the Arabic at that time unadulterated by outside influence. (For comparison, consider the English of Beowulf in its pagan pre-Christian purity).
Imrul Qays is a master of description, who creates beautiful, precise accounts of the wildlife, mountains, clouds and dark starry nights. He is a master of the technique by which the poet likens the characteristics of one animal to those of another. His horse has 'the loins of a gazelle, the thighs of an ostrich, he gallops like a wolf, canters like a young fox'. He was the first to compare the eyes of his beloved to those of a gazelle.
His ode is also famously erotic. There is a long section devoted to the women he has loved and from whom he has been separated by the nomadic lifestyle and whom he longs to rejoin. In a celebrated passage he recounts an amorous encounter on the back of a sand dune, his lover 'fair in her colour, splendid in her grace, her bosom smoothed as a mirror’s polished face'. (R. A. Nicholson’s translation, 1922).
Not only did these themes, techniques and forms continue to reside in the core of Arabic poetic tradition, they are the precursor of the ode and sonnet we know so well in our own. Celebrated and developed by the Moors in Al Andalus and brought into France by the troubadours, the sonnet was perfected in English by Shakespeare – a thousand-year literary journey that began in the wild deserts of central Arabia.
There are many translations of this poem into English, the first by William Jones in 1782 right up to the very recent translations of Paul Smith and Desmond O’Grady.
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
This work is actually written in English but it is Arabic literature. Gibran, who came from a poor Lebanese-Christian family, moved to the United States in the 19th century. He and his contemporaries formed what became known as the Exile School, and wrote their works in both English and Arabic.
The Prophet is made up of 26 poetic essays on the human condition, spoken by a mystical figure who is about to depart on a journey. A crowd gathers round him on the quay side and asks for insights into the human condition: on love, money, children, work, clothes. His answers form a spiritual, philosophical view of living that has enchanted readers around the world ever since it was first published in 1923. 'Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself', the Prophet says, and though the words are English the idiom is undeniably Arabic. 'Love one another', advises the Prophet, 'but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls'.
These beautiful, gentle, but powerful musings transcend cultural boundaries. The Prophet has been translated into 40 languages and is one of the bestselling works of all time.
Zaat by Sonallah Ibrahim
Sonallah was born in Cairo, became a Marxist in his youth, and spent several years in prison during the 1960s for his views. His novel Zaat tells the tale of modern Egypt though the eyes of its heroine, Zaat, during the periods of the three presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. It goes from the optimism of the early years following the revolution to the full-blown capitalisation and corruption of Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s of the last century.
Expertly crafted, each of the chapters narrating Zaat’s life, marriage, work and social life is interspersed with a series of newspaper clippings and photograph captions detailing the political and economic events of the day – corruption cases, financial scandals, torture, foreign debt – that graphically lay open the banal thuggery of the rulers and the greed and stupidity of the nouveau-riche.
Poignant, yet darkly hilarious at times, the novel chronicles the struggles of the decent, honest and long-suffering Zaat as she navigates the vicissitudes of contemporary life, modernisation, consumerism and the ever-present mirage of new wealth.
The novel provides a wonderful insight into what happened to the Arab world over the second half of the 20th century, and where all the dreams went. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand why the Arab Spring came about and why, in many cases, it soon turned into a dark winter.
The Chronicles of Majnun Layla by Qassim Haddad
Widely acknowledged as the greatest living Gulf poet, Qassim Haddad did not finish secondary school. Born in Bahrain in 1948, he left formal education early to contribute to his family’s income. Like Sonallah Ibrahim, he is a revolutionary as well as a writer, and was jailed for his political beliefs in the 1950s.
Majnun Layla is a legendary figure in Arabic literature and one who is also celebrated in the literature of Persia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The name means 'the man who has gone mad because he loves Layla so much'. The Majnun Layla narrative, with its themes of ill-fated lovers and feuding tribes, has been an essential theme in Arab literature and performance art since the 9th century. It became a favorite theme of the Sufi poets, who saw Majnun’s all-absorbing love for Layla and Layla’s unreachableness as symbolic of the devotee’s quest for the divine. And it influenced Eric Clapton to write a song.
Qassim’s version revives this ancient tale and reworks it free from its tribal context and puritanical background. In his version, the two lovers consummate their longing for one another uncompromised by social constraint or moral code. There is much thrashing of limbs and consuming passion, and both lovers laud the joy of physical uninhibited love to their peers. The text is beautifully written in exquisite classical Arabic and abides by the traditional convention of rhyming prose. Yet at the same time, its themes are unmistakably modern and subversive.
The recent translation of Majnun Layla by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden also includes a selection of Qassim’s poetry: precise, uncompromising, and with a sharp political edge, it too is well worth a read.
Why translation is crucial to cultural understanding
Four of these works, and many others of Arabic literature, are available thanks to the efforts of the translators who carry out the valuable task of bringing literature across language barriers. Translation is the quintessential work of crossculturalism and lies at the very heart of creating deeper understanding between people through the insights it provides and the joy it brings.
If journalism and history relate the day-to-day events of nations – the surface narrative, the waking lives – then it is literature that expresses their dreams and fears. Reading works of literature from another culture reveals how remarkably similar are the urges and drives, the passions and delights, that motivate all of us. Beauty, love and truth: how much John Keats and Imrul Qays have in common.
So get online and fill your trolley, or pop down to your local orientalist bookshop, have a browse and tune in to one of the world’s great literary traditions.
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